Travel is always something special: the opportunity to explore new places, experience new cultures, and learn from the people you meet. And when you have the opportunity to travel somewhere that you’ve always heard about, and grown up learning stories about certain places, it is even more special.
That was definitely the case with this trip. I’ve recently come back from a short trip to Israel and the Holy Land, and had the opportunity to walk around, and explore the places I’ve grown up reading about in the Bible.
I feel incredibly blessed to have had this experience; to meet the people who made up the team, to teach and serve together, and to learn more about the Bible, and Jesus’ life through seeing these places with my own eyes.
Throughout this post, I may pay reference to the idea of ‘thought to be where it happened’, and want to add just a little comment about that. As a historian, I know full well the limitations of knowing where events happened, and the reality is, we’ll never know for sure where these events took place. That said – for me, this isn’t important. What is important though, and what was most special for me about this trip, was learning more about the context, both of the culture, and of the bible – and how that’s made it lift off the pages in new and exciting ways.
Bethlehem, the House of Bread
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf.”
Before we even start – can I just say, how much I’ve learnt, heard, spoken, and even sung about Bethlehem? From ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, the words get spoken over and over in the lead up to Christmas each year. I can say almost without doubt, that I’ll not sing those words the same way again. Having walked the streets, seen a glimpse of what the city is like, and spoken to the locals – I now approach the well-known towns and cities with a very different perspective.
The Shepherds’ Fields
Our base for the week was in Bethlehem, and we also had the opportunity to explore some of the local sites. We took a quick visit to the Shepherds’ Fields – thought to be where the shepherds were staying when visited by the angels.
“Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Saviour—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!”
There is a chapel built on site, with a gorgeous dome that looks to the heavenly hosts of angels. It’s also got some pretty amazing acoustics, and so as a team, we sang ‘Silent Night’, and ‘Angels we have Heard on High’ – we left the shepherd’s washing their socks for another time though.
Around the corner, were a few caves. Inside we were able to catch a glimpse of what caves would have been like – because that’s where people lived. The Holy Land is remarkably sparse of trees and wood, both today, and in the 1st century, and so houses weren’t made from timber. Instead, what we think of as the nativity scene, complete with barn and stable, in reality, was the lower part of a cave, where families kept their livestock. This provided Mary and Joseph with the privacy and shelter they needed.
Church of the Nativity
Also in Bethlehem, was the Church of the Nativity. This was somewhere that I’ve seen many times on pilgrimage TV shows, or in RE lessons at school, and so it was cool to be able to see it for myself, with my own eyes. In this instance, it was very much a case that I found the history of the building far more interesting that the actual ‘location’. I loved learning how the 4th century church was saved from destruction by the Persians during the revolts in the 7th century, because they saw a mosaic of the Magi on the outer walls. In that, they saw the Magi depicted in Persian attire, and so the Sultan ordered it to be spared. As a result, the church is the oldest, complete church in the Christian world.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”
The Israeli-Palestinian Wall
One of the hardest things to see in Bethlehem was the wall that separates Palestine and Israel. I admit: I went there uneducated, ill-informed, and while I was somewhat aware of ‘goings-on’, I would still probably class myself as ignorant. It was an amazing opportunity to learn more about the situation; talk to people who live there, and see for myself what has been going on.
I fully know that I won’t ever understand the situation, particularly as so often we get fed false, or altered information. I’m also aware that in every conflict, there are two sides to the story. I’ve learnt, and experienced one side, and over the next few months, I’m determined to do some reading, to research, and to learn more about what I’ve seen – in an attempt to understand, but also to hopefully know better how to pray.
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
Herodion (also known as Herodium)
Just outside of Bethlehem is a place known to the locals as Herodion, and so that’s what I’ll refer to it as here. If you google it though, just know that it’s exactly the same place as Herodium. A bit like ‘Italy’ and ‘Italia’ – ‘Herodium’ is most likely anglicised.
Herod the Great’s fortress and burial site is found here, situated upon the top of a man-made hill. Yup, you read that right. Herod actually hired men to move sand and ‘make a mountain’. This alone shows how fearful he was of attack, something that was evident throughout the whole fortress.
That said though, the views on the way up, and at the top, were spectacular. We could make out the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, could look back to Bethlehem, and look towards Jordan, and the Dead Sea. The last two were hidden because of the heat haze, but we could just about make out a dark patch that was where it should be.
It was also really interesting to look out into the Judean wilderness; the place where Jesus fasted for 40 days and faced temptation, where David hid from King Saul, and where John the Baptist preached. It was another example of seeing places and understanding more of what happened: what Jesus would have been contending with while fasting, and the strength and will-power that would have been needed.
Herod the Great chose to build his fortress here as a shelter on the way out of Jerusalem – and chose this as his burial place. He is known as the Master Builder, having built numerous temples, fortresses, and ports all over the area. That said, to build successfully requires money, and that meant taxes. He taxed heavily, and that, amongst other things, made him very unpopular. As a result, his tomb was ransacked shortly after his death in 4 BC, and his tomb was only rediscovered in 2007, by Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer.
It was great to be able to explore this site, without the crowds – and we saw the synagogue, the Roman baths, and the great cisterns – which supplied the fortress with water. It’s thought that those who knew the entrances to the cisterns were slaves or convicts awaiting punishment by death. They were worked hard, and then executed – so that no-one knew of the entrances, so infiltration wasn’t possible.
This place is also thought to be where Herod gave the order for the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem, in response to his fear at Jesus’ birth. Having seen the tombs in Bethlehem, it gives a new sense of how many he struck down because of his insecurities.
Pretty much everything that Herod built, despite being such a proficient builder, is now in ruins. He built to protect himself, and to create greater status for himself. At the same time, Jesus was building: but for the glory of God. And what Jesus built remains here today – and we, as Christians, continue to build on it ourselves.
I’m going to leave the travel account here for the time being – as I’m aware this has gone on a while. The next instalment will hopefully be up next week, but until then, I’d love to know your thoughts. Have you ever travelled to this area? Ever wanted to yourself? If so, what were your impressions, or ideas of what the Holy Land would be like?
Till next time,
Interested in finding out more? The next part of this series can be found here!